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Many commentators note that the lineage of Cain in Genesis 4 is followed by a genealogy of Seth in Genesis 5 and compare the two lines, treating Cain's line as godless and Seth's line as godly. This particularly appears, for example, in some discussions of Genesis 6:2 and the nature of the sons of God and the daughters of men.

Of course the narrator is silent in making explicit comparisons of the two, but are there exegetical reasons to see (or not see) an implicit comparison between the line of Cain and the line of Seth?

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There is no comparison between the genealogy of chapters four and five, however there is a comparison being made between the genealogy of chapters four and the end of chapter four

Genesis 4 17-18a (ESV)

17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch. 18 To Enoch was born Irad,

Genesis 4 25-26b (ESV)

25 And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed[g] for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.” 26 To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh.

Genesis 5 3-8 (ESV)

3 When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. 4 The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters. 5 Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died.

6 When Seth had lived 105 years, he fathered Enosh. 7 Seth lived after he fathered Enosh 807 years and had other sons and daughters. 8 Thus all the days of Seth were 912 years, and he died.

It is obvious that Genesis 5 is not like Genesis 4. However, the two genealogies in chapter four are similar and often where the second disagrees it disagrees in a way that brings one's attention back to Cain (Adam knows Eve again, Seth has a child also, Seth is so called because Cain killed his brother Abel.

The similarities are obvious, in both cases the genealogy begins with the patriarch knowing his wife, with the following children/child coming out of the resultant son. In addition, after Cain's genealogy to Lamech's children is Lamech boasting his sinful boast. While after the Adam to Enosh genealogy we aretold "At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord." (ESV), a very clear contrast. (Chapter Five begins 'This is the book of the generations of Adam.' (ESV) so it is not misleading to hold it distinct from chapter four.)

We can conclude that the author is not making an implicit comparison in chapter five to Cain's genealogy on the basis of lacking these commonalities that we see in the Adam line where the author is making an implicit comparison. And so, Augustine is not wrong to see a distinction between the rotten line of Cain and the good line of Seth, but it is not in chapter five, but later in chapter four.

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Not between Cain and Seth, but between Adam and Enosh. R. Sacks (The Lion and the Ass, page 79) points out that Adam and Enosh both mean 'man' in the Hebrew language. This allows us to create the following parallel enter image description here

In this comparison, we see that the descendants of Man (Adam) and Enosh form parallels, except for the precise crossover of three sets of names. Sacks says we can see that the crossover is intentional, because both Enoch (column 1) and Mahalaleel (column 2) were 65 years old at the birth of their first sons.

Leon R. Kass says, in The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, page 157, that "Some evidence can be adduced that it is the line of Cain that are the sons of God." On page 157, Kass says "There is equal if not greater evidence on the other side" - the line of Seth.

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  • Alice C. Linsley sees in the various common names shared between the two clans proof of a certain Afro-Asiatic pattern, supported by anthropological data, wherein the tribe leader takes two wives, a half-sister and a cousin, settling them on a north-south axis (in imitation of the sun, whose two wives are the east and the west), the latter (almost) always naming her first-born after her father.
    – Lucian
    Aug 9 '17 at 11:46
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The following approach is based on the Biblical commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch a 19th century commentator who belonged to a movement that sought to make the Bible and religion more accessible to then modern man. Hirsch followed a long exegetical line that

          biblical names indicate attributes. 

This is seen explicitly at times; for example Jacob is called Jacob because he grabs his brother (Esau, enemy)by the heal perhaps symbolic of his life. Using this idea, we see that

            Genealogies  indicate community life cycles

In other words, each generation has a certain attribute and the sequence of attributes indicates the life cycle of the community. Using this idea we can approximately summarize both the life cycle of Kayin and Seth. There are many similarities and also divergences. Kayin’s lifecycle is as follows

          Possession--> education--> wild-assed---> Forget about God--> 
          The masses ask/grope for meaning--> leadership

For example, if a previous generation has possessions, this could naturally lead to the subsequent generation seeking education (to preserve societal wealth). This education can lead to self-sufficiency; first there is a generation of wildness (since people are educated, they know it all) followed by forgetting about God.

In arriving at these translations I have used pretty standard biblical terms. Chanoch is in fact the biblical root for education (or training). A transposition of lemech is melech indicating a search for leadership.

A similar analysis applied to Seth's genealogy as follows

          Foundation--->Helpless man---> possession---> praise God---> 
          depression--->education---> masses spread---> leaders

One can then search for parallels in both community cycles as well as divergences. I personally don’t see one as more religious than the other

In presenting this idea I regard it as precisely that: An idea that can be developed in multiple ways but nevertheless points to certain underlying communal lifecycle patterns.

I want to thank Nigel J. for raising in a comment the interesting question: Is this serious exegetical work (“hermeneutical analysis” ) or is it “opinion and interpretation.”

He is correct. I should not have left this out of the post and therefore am adding it.

I believe the above approach presented by me is serious exegetical work. I therefore have to justify this type of genre. Before doing so I point out the obvious: It is not a grammatical or linguistic genre of exegesis. I haven't spoken about the meaning of words in Hebrew or other languages; nor have I spoken about the conjugation of verbs.

The approach I used is symbolic. Symbolism may or may not be justified. There are biblical passages which are clearly symbolic as interpreted by all scholars, all religions, and all periods One such passage is Ecclesiastes 11:9 - 12:7.

The opening verses say, "You can enjoy yourself in youth but you will have to pay; remember your creator while young before years come [old age] in which you say I have no desire to live.”

Thus the symbolic theme is clearly identified. Every commenter takes the passage this way. Certain things are clear: "[Remember your creator before...] the grinders cease" undoubtedly refers to loss of teeth in old age.

But although we are certain of the meaning of certain symbolic passages there are others which have ambiguity (What does "silver cord breaking" and "golden bowl breaking" symbolize).

What we can conclude is that

*Certain passages are universally agreed as symbolic *In such passages the symbolic meaning of some phrases is unambiguous *The symbolic meaning of other phrases is doubtful (subject to multiple interpretations)

The fact that symbolism is not as precise as grammar should not deter us from analyzing such passages. We can say the following about the genealogies in Gen. 4 and 5.

Many verses explicitly indicate that "he called his name" is equivalent more to "he nicknamed him"; his name reflects attributes of the person or generation. Some examples are Gen 10:25 "He called his name "split" because the world "split" in his day or Gen 5:29 He call his name "rest" ...this [person] will comfort us [give us rest] from our work and toil and the ground God cursed.”

Thus, it is a reasonable exegetical exercise to say that names reflect attributes and the biblical narrative should be read that way. But then we are in the same situation as Ecclesiastes 12. We know there is a message here but not certain of the meaning of every phrase.

Like Ecclesiastes 12 we can be certain of the symbolic meanings of certain names. Chanoch means training; Eyrad is similar enough to Erod to justify the interpretation "wild-ass" All I have done above is take the most reasonable translations of various names and see them as part of a communal life cycle. If I was writing a paper I would then have to document how these life cycles are present throughout history. But I think this is plausible.

I believe this a serious exegetical approach (with emphasis on the word “approach” versus a completed interpretation). I also believe that too often biblical scholars dismiss a symbolic passage as "a matter of interpretation" when in fact certainties may be inferred.

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  • This seems, to me, to be based on opinion and interpretation, rather then hermeneutical analysis of the text of scripture.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 23 at 15:21
  • Excellent point. I did intend it as serious exegetical work. I should have anticipated this question. I am adding to my answer now which will address this Feb 25 at 1:48

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